More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
The secret life of girls
Friday, October 1, 2004
By Judy Powell

Girls are acculturated to hide their anger leading to grudges, rumor spreading and ganging up on each other, best-selling writer Rachel Simmons told a full-house of parents in the high school auditorium last week.

Simmons, the author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, spoke about her ground-breaking research on female relationships as part of a two-day program for students, teachers and residents.

The event was initiated and organized by senior Elana Schwam, who heard Simmons talk a year ago and thought "I have to bring this to Westborough."

"It was the first time in my life I felt I wasn't alone," explained Schwam, who introduced Simmons. "Girls judge and hurt each other and use friendships as a double edge sword. Her work will help us deal with our jealousy and make us feel better about ourselves."

One way Simmons hopes to accomplish this is by educating parents and teachers to the subtle signs of girl bullying, and encouraging them to react to it the same way they would a physical exchange between boys.

For example, when a boy throws a punch on a playground there is usually an adult response, whether it is time in the principal's office, a call home or a suspension. The child is held accountable and families are notified.

If a girl convinces a group of friends to exclude another girl, there is no comparable reaction by adults leaving the child to deal with her hurt, anger and confusion alone.

Left unchecked, this form of indirect aggression may have a permanent impact on a student's academic performance and emotional well being, according to Simmons.

Drawing from personal history, Simmons spoke for more than an hour, answering questions from parents at the end.

Simmons recounted her experience as an 8-year-old child when she was the victim of female aggression.

"I was bullied by a girl, who told lies about me. Her goal was for me not to have any friends. I felt devastated," she said.

As a Rhodes Scholar in Oxford, Simmons began her own research on the psychology of female bullying after discovering a dearth of information on the topic.

"They weren't calling it aggression, they were calling it 'developmental,' which writes off the behavior," she said. "The perpetrator of the crime was living above the law."

Simmons said that in order for change to take place, ostracizing behavior, sustained negative comments, gossip spreading and the like has to be defined as aggression.

"What is harmful about rumors?" she asked. "They damage the target's relationships. It's serious. It hurts. It sticks to you. It is harsh. So we need to take this kind of social aggression seriously. We need to validate what the girl is going through."

Simmons said the internet poses a large threat to teenage girls, and not necessarily from sexual predators.

"It has become the 'bathroom wall' for a generation of girls," she explained. "You need to think of it as a place where kids go to hang out without adults. Through instant messaging, these kids can bully each other, spread rumors and lies, all in a matter of seconds."

Parents need to talk to their daughters about ethical behavior online, according to Simmons.

"If you wouldn't say it, you shouldn't send it," she said. "And it is never acceptable to use somebody else's screen name or password. There has to be boundaries and you, as parents, are entitled to some say in the type of media they are using."

Simmons injected humor into her presentation, including a dead-on valley girl imitation complete with an abundance of "likes" and "whatevers."

But she was serious when discussing the duplicity in girls, who may flip flop from victim to victimizer all in one week since they don't know how to express their anger differently.

"If you think conflict will terminate your relationship, you will go find somebody to stand with you when you're angry so you'll never alone," Simmons explained. "They will use anger as a means to connect with another girl."

At the same time, she said it is important to raise resilient children and not micro-manage their social life.

"When do you become involved? When you see your child wilt like a plant that is dying," she said. "That is when you do something."

According to Simmons, awareness, communication and validation are the beginning steps to diffusing the hidden culture of aggression in girls.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Simmons: confront aggression head-on

Simmons: confront aggression head-on
Friday, October 1, 2004
By Geoff Mosher

Seventh-grader Amanda Stevens and her friends couldn't help but laugh at just how closely Rachel Simmons' message hit home last week.

"We were just giggling sometimes because it related to us," Stevens said from the cafeteria of Gibbons Middle School shortly after the New York Times best-selling author and expert on female aggression had finished her final presentation in Westborough, at the Gibbons auditorium.

Simmons' two-day visit included a training session for the 4-12 faculty and a lecture geared to parents Sept. 23. The following day, she talked to high school girls, then girls in grades 6-8.

"She really was able to connect with us," said eighth-grader Taylor Cronin, who, like many young women, was struck by how well Simmons, 30, could relate to girls half her age.

"She knew exactly the things that have happened to us," said Kaitelyn Patrick, an eighth-grader.

Seventh-grader Veronica Hilton agreed.

"Everything she said you could picture in your head," Hilton said.

"Even if it wasn't you," Stevens added, "you've seen people doing it or you've heard it."

In her presentation, Simmons peeled away the "sugar-and-spice-and-everything-nice" view of adolescent female society to expose the covert, psychological warfare that's waged daily in the halls of schools across the country.

Simmons relied heavily on insights gleaned through interviews with hundreds of adolescent girls from different areas of the country for what would become Odd Girl Out, an exposé and instruction manual for treating girls' aggression.

To make her presentation more compelling, Simmons weaved in personal anecdotes about how she was both a victim and perpetrator of bullying, which made her presentation all the more compelling.

"It made her seem a lot more human," Hilton said.

While discussing the negative side of female socialization, Simmons frequently broke off into amusing characterizations of girls in hypothetical examples.

"She did a lot of interesting voices," said Megan Lucier, an eighth-grader.

The aggressive behavior Simmons discussed stems from all the societal pressures that are heaped upon girls at a young age.

"There's a lot of interlocking things in our culture that create pressure," Simmons said, adding that these cultural forces work against young women by dividing them against each other.

Girls feel pressure to please everyone, to appear carefree and to look perfect. The result is competition and aggression waged beneath the radar through darting glances, name-calling, note-passing, shunning friends and innumerable other covert forms of bullying, which Simmons calls "alternative aggression."

"I know that there are people in this room who are talking about another girl when she's not there," she said. "Nobody deserves that kind of treatment."

At one point, Simmons asked how many girls in the audience had kept bad feelings about another girl under wrap. Virtually every girl in the auditorium raised their hand.

"Interesting. Look around, ladies," Simmons said.

While some girls are able to put negative behavior behind them and move on, others remain scarred for life, Simmons said.

She admonished the girls to acknowledge their own aggression and that of their peers so they can feel empowered to negotiate conflicts, and eventually define new and healthier relationships.

"We're all good girls who have done bad things," Simmons said. "Let's just acknowledge that we do it and do something about it."

Confronting alternative aggression head-on, Simmons told the girls, is what true courage is all about.

"There's nothing that says we can't talk about it," she said. "It will poison your relationship if you don't talk about it."

Parents, Simmons recommends, should show their daughters that conflict-free relationships don't exist. Instead of thinking conflict ends relationships, girls would then learn that they can't survive without it and would not let fear control them.

"I believe our task now is to give every girl, every parent, and every teacher a shared, public language to address girls' conflicts and relationships," Simmons writes.

Patrick, and many Westborough school girls like her, are already speaking part of that language.

"You should go straight to the person before talking to somebody else," she said. "It's something that a lot of people don't know that they should know."
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